Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
After being released from Washington Central Hospital, Susan and I drove to Bellingham to stay at Kari's house for ten days until a scheduled follow up appointment back in Wenatchee. Friends came to visit and talk, and it was great to see them all again. My speech was obviously slowed and some words seemed to be just out of grasp, but worse was not remembering details of the conversations a day later. The only thing that seemed to come easily was sleep—fourteen hours or more a day!
The drive from Wenatchee to Jackson was interminable, even with an overnight near Spokane; Susan did a great job of driving the distance. The next few weeks were a blur of sleep and...what? Not much else. As I wasn't moving much, I had almost no appetite. Even recovery was a passive activity. Motivation was severely lacking.
My head seemed to return to normal gradually over those weeks and months; the last effect I noticed was in trying to read aloud—I could read to myself at a normal pace, and I could speak at a normal rate, but there seemed to be some mechanism just not in synch while trying to read aloud. The words would just not form. Concentration spans gradually lengthened to where books again became enjoyable.
Physical effects gradually diminished as well. Being able to roll over or be on my side while sleeping brought major improvement in comfort. My broken ankle, although the slowest injury to heal, was always the least painful, even in the hours after the accident.
Climbing was my raison d'être and I had no Plan B; no work, no other hobbies, and a relationship gradually growing distant. But I was still among the fortunate ones; the accident could have easily been much worse, and I had maintained my own health insurance after leaving work. The bills for those few days in the hospital totaled over $22,000. No insurance and my trip would have been severely curtailed.
I wish I could say that the recovery phase has been good for me, and that I've learned value in slowing down and that I took the time to learn Spanish, or organize my photo albums, or done something. But I didn't learn any lessons, other than that recovery sucks, plain and simple. Even the blog has suffered; what might be a chance to further the craft of writing took a holiday. I view the blog as a way of keeping track of the various places I visit, the people I meet, and the events experienced; nothing worth writing about has occurred in the past few months.
The one exception to “nothing” was attending a Wilderness First Responder (WFR, pronounced Woofer) class from November 30th until December 8th in Jackson. With only one day off, the class was 8 hours a day of first aid techniques especially tailored to meet the needs of those who travel a bit off the beaten path. This is the type of training Susan utilized in the hours between my fall and the arrival of the E.R. doctor who was part of the evacuation team, and even until arrival at the ambulance and advanced medical equipment. The information in the class, the presenters, and my fellow students were all stimulating, and did wonders for me personally, in just getting me up and motivated to do something every day. The class gave me additional insight to the care I received from Susan in those first critical hours and the ability to in turn provide that same care to someone in a similar situation. The class also gave me renewed appreciation for the professional manner in which Susan acted. She was, in a word, awesome.
As I write this, 2009 is drawing to a close. I am in South Florida visiting family for the holidays and will return to Jackson the first week of 2010. As soon as I return to Jackson, I'll leave again for warmer climes, this time to Vegas to see Sam and Brie until I need to return again to Jackson for a doctor's appointment on January 20th. At that point, almost 3 ½ months after the accident, I should be able to begin walking without the hard boot. I have tried not to look ahead to that day...but it's getting close enough to let myself fantasize about long walks in the snow, some cross-country ski trips, and gradually increasing both the distances and slope angle till I'm back amidst the vertical world.
Saturday, October 24, 2009
Our first day of climbing was at Pearly Gates, an area of Leavenworth with a relatively high concentration of routes in one small outcrop of beautiful granite. I had previously been to this area and was only too glad to return as it is such aesthetic climbing. Unfortunately I had misjudged the sun, and the crag didn't receive any direct sunlight the whole day. We spent a few climbs looking longingly over the valley at some of the other crags basking in the warm sun. Even at that though, the weather wasn't cold enough to temper our enjoyment, and we were additionally kept company most of the day by a mother goat and two kids. Goats in this area, as other areas, are keenly interested in salt by any means, whether from chewing on sweat soaked backpack straps or clothing, or by licking the ground after a climber urinates. The first time I camped in The Enchantments, just beyond Leavenworth, I awoke in the morning for a casual pee, strolled a few steps from the tent, and undid my pants zipper. The sound of the zipper must have been like a trumpet horn, as immediately a half dozen goats came running towards me from all directions!
The goats hung about almost all day, most of the time near us but later in the afternoon they climbed the cliffs above us and occasionally knocked down small rocks in their forays above. We took turns leading routes, and with no other people at the crag got in a fair bit of climbing in a short while. I was happy as I was able to do some routes this time that I hadn't been able to do on my last visit.
We returned to the car to an unexpected phone message; Susan was told that the course she had planned to observe was cancelled. Looking at her calendar, she realized the next option was in Boulder, CO—in four days! She put in calls there to see if there was a spot open, but as it was already late in the day had no replies. We decided to head to Bellingham, just three hours away, to visit some of my friends and await a reply.
Arriving in Bellingham Susan found out that the Boulder class was also cancelled, but then almost immediately received a call from another employer with an offer to go to Antarctica for two months, beginning as soon as possible. She decided to take this offer, but that meant heading home to Jackson. As we had already made plans to meet some Bellingham friends back in Leavenworth for the weekend, we headed there Thursday in order to get in a long route on Friday before everyone else arrived.
Our objective for Friday—my birthday!—was Outer Space, a six pitch moderate climb up a spectacular 800 foot face, about an hour and a half hike in from the trailhead. I had done this climb 2 ½ times previously: once with Sam; half a time with Brie when she had a freak fall halfway up the climb necessitating a long self-rescue; and once more with Brie to finish what we had once started. Today was my birthday, and after leading the first two easy approach pitches, turned over the leading to Susan. I had already led all the pitches on my last climb there, and wanted her to have the full enjoyment (she loved it!) of getting to head up first on the upper pitches.
The sun never came out as the forecast had promised, and we were a bit cold here and there on the climb but nothing could detract much from the spectacular climbing. There was one other party of two climbers just below us, and I chatted to Brian and Eric at a couple of belays, just soaking in all the scenery and the overall perfectness of the pitches. Unfortunately I didn't have my camera and kept forgetting to take Susan's so I could get pictures of the climb. The last two pitches are two full lengths of a perfect handcrack surrounded on both sides by chickenheads, some large enough to be tied off. What this means, for those non-climbers reading this, is about as enjoyable climbing as can be imagined.
We arrived at the top of the climb and slowly gathered our gear for the descent—it was such an enjoyable climb we wanted it to last forever. The descent consisted of a walk off down a circuitous and steep trail down the south side of the mountain. We would not be roped together, but we would be careful. The trail meandered back and forth over some exposed areas, and we were glad to be nearing the end of the day. Once back at our packs which we had stashed at the bottom of the climb, we would be able to eat and drink a little before the downhill hike back to the car, which we expected to reach just at dusk.
Nearing the very last steep and exposed section of rock at about 5:20 p.m., I was 10 feet in front of Susan and a little above the other two climbers, who had reached the top of the climb behind us but had, in the intervening 30 minutes, meandered down the trail slightly in front of us. Movement suddenly caught Susan's eye, and she immediately yelled “ROCK!” as an object came hurtling from above. It was indeed a soccer ball sized rock, dislodged from a couple of goats above us. Her yell was too late for me, as I neither remember hearing her yell or being struck on the back by the rock. The impact knocked me completely off my feet, and I began sliding down a scree-covered slab section of about 10 feet. Her yells changed to “HELP HIM!” as I disappeared down the slab and over a 20-25' drop-off, and landed amongst the rocks below. According to Susan, I never cried out after being hit, and the look on my face as I hit the ground and began sliding was simply one of wonderment and incomprehension. Brian, the climber closest to me, actually saw the fall and reacted immediately as a newly trained EMT, rushing to my side and cradling my head in a spine-neutral manner.
Brian recalled hearing the sound of breath being pushed from my body, and that it took about 15-20 seconds for that breath to re-enter. Susan rushed down as quickly as safely possible, and they took turns in monitoring my vital signs. As for me, I remember nothing about the fall but for two ephemeral thoughts: Quit pushing me; and Can I stop at this level? Those thoughts were nothing but two frames stolen from a movie, without any other context. The next 20 minutes were also a blur—I remember seeing the outline of the mountains, and thinking that I must be in Japan. I don't remember seeing Brian or Eric's face, but I remember seeing Susan's face and distinctly not knowing who she was. The word “Leavenworth” kept coming into my thoughts, but I couldn't relate it to anything. I did know my name, and knew that it was my birthday, but other than that I was coming up pretty empty on information. My face was simply one of concentration as I tried to comprehend my surroundings. I asked where I was and what had happened, and Susan explained very carefully the where and what. I gave this answer grave consideration, then promptly asked the same question again. And again.
Realizing that I needed to be moved to a location more suitable for safety and for monitoring and hypothermia and/or shock prevention, they located a flat spot just below and to the left of me and laid down some empty backpacks for insulation. Susan did a careful evaluation of my spine, and with my consent decided to move me to the more safe and
secure location. The pain in my ribs was almost unbearable, but Susan said that I either needed to move myself or they would do it for me, which she assured me would hurt worse. With their help, I was able to gradually get into a better position onto the bed of packs. The goats remained above us and for the next several hours (even until the rescuers eventually arrived) the occasional small rock whistled down into the bushes around us. This new position was underneath a slight overhang and protected us from any more stray debris from above.
Eric had called 911 within 10-15 minutes of the fall, and he now called once again for an update. He was informed that there was already a search under way for a missing climber and additionally a motorcyclist had been hit just near the trailhead parking lot and other personnel were helping with that accident. Resources were being stretched thin. A helicopter had been briefly considered, but with no good landing zone and with the cliff being too close for a helicopter to hover for a winch effort, combined with the coming nightfall, an evacuation by land was the only real option.
With this knowledge, Brian and Eric volunteered to hike down to our vehicles and bring back sleeping bags and jackets for our group. I was already covered with all spare articles of clothing that we had, as well as the climbing ropes, slings, shoes, and anything else that an inventory of our combined resources had uncovered. I had also peed in a bottle and kept it close against my chest for warmth. But with the potential for an all-night vigil, more insulation became critical. At about 7:30, after some discussion, it was agreed that the best use of resources would be for both Brian and Eric to descend to our cars, leaving Susan and myself together for the next few hours.
A number of years ago I had been in a motorcycle accident and badly damaged my ribs. Twice during that incident, I started breathing too quickly for my own good and panicked as I realized the rib pain would not allow me to breathe as much as I wanted. Fortunately an oxygen mask was available to help calm my breathing. Recalling that panicked feeling and knowing no help was available this time, during this whole episode I concentrated on keeping my breathing as calm and steady as possible. The next few hours alone with Susan were rather uncomfortable and I just tried to find a balance between “letting go” yet still staying in contact with what was happening with my body. To this end I refused any ibuprofen, rather wanting to know if the pain was worsening, or any new pains were developing.
Brian and Eric returned at about 9:45 with both sleeping bags and jackets, and the news that the rescue team was assembling in the parking lot and should be about an hour behind. The sleeping bags made a huge difference, as can be imagined! Though still not exactly comfortable, I was at last warm and took additional comfort in the knowledge that the evacuation would soon begin.
The rescue team arrived as expected around 10:40. Dr. Mark was the head medic, an ER doctor and climber himself. He gave me another exam and then, mercifully, a small dose of morphine and an accompanying anti-nausea drug. Several Chelan County sheriff department members and several Chelan Search and Rescue volunteers made up the rest of the
crew; Susan, Brian, and Eric were also integrated into the team. Brian and Eric rigged up the first set of anchors for lowering the litter, a process that would be repeated 5 or 6 times throughout the rest of the night. Susan was primarily responsible for manning and managing the rope itself.
We had to descend a steep slope to a creek and then back up a short distance to the main trail. The descent was overall not excessively steep, excepting one short exposed traverse. But the main obstacles were the numerous boulders and downed logs
littering either side of the small climber's trail. Handling the litter through all of this was a brutish job, and the team did an outstanding job of limiting the amount of jostling to the litter. I was just a passive part of the rescue at this point, and again I took the opportunity to distance myself as much as possible from the events.
Hours passed, and eventually we arrived at the beginning of the hiker's trail. As Dr. Mark fixed me up with another pain shot, a wheel was attached to the litter and the ropes and gear were packed away. Everyone took turns handling the litter, which may have been even more cumbersome now. Two more hours passed, and at 6:30 a.m. with one last section of pure man-handling the litter up a steep stepped section, we arrived at the parking lot and awaiting ambulance. We said our good-byes and went our separate ways for the time-being; me on a 30 minute ride to the hospital in Wenatchee, Susan to the campsite to find our friends and pack up our gear, Brian and Eric back to their camp, and the rescue crew back to their lives and hopefully a well-deserved rest.
At the hospital I underwent a series of x-rays and c-scans to various body parts. The total damage was determined to be a broken ankle, fractured ribs, fractured jaw, broken molar, mild to moderate concussion, whiplash, and various cuts and bruises, including one just under the chin needing nine stitches. Later that day I underwent surgery to repair the ankle, and came out with some nice new hardware holding everything together. Other than the previously mentioned stitches, not much else could be done.
Knowing that we had been camping, a cot was brought in to my room for Susan to stay on; one of the rescue team members had also offered her a place to stay just a few minutes from the hospital, an extremely generous offer. I spent the next few days in the hospital either sleeping, just waking up, or just getting ready to sleep. It was about 24 hours until the
whiplash receded and I could hold my head up by myself. The ribs caused the most problems—I could not really move around much by myself. The nurses and assistants at the hospital, and of course Susan, did everything they could to help, and I was actually pretty comfortable most of the time. Eating remained a problem, as the jaw fracture prevented me from either opening my mouth very wide or from chewing. But at least I didn't need a straw for everything!
I was in amazingly capable hands from the time of the fall. I cannot fully express my gratitude to everyone along the way—Brian and Eric, Dr. Mark, the rescue team, the ambulance medics, the examining doctor at the hospital, Dr. Vejvoda who operated on my ankle, the nurses and assistants at the hospital, and of course Susan.
Susan and I have spent hours going over the details of the incident. Although we knew there were goats in the vicinity and of their tendency to knock down scree, there was no warning of goats above us either from sighting them or from rockfall previous to the one rock that hit me. Being hit by a goat trundled rock is an objective danger, but should not be viewed as a freak accident or one-time occurrence. There are too many goats and too many climbers sharing these areas for a similar incident not to have previously happened, or to not again occur. The only freak thing about this particular accident was the size of the rock.
There were two main lessons we, as climbers, took away from this accident. The first lesson is to wear a helmet whenever near the crags in this area where goats can be expected, generally anywhere on the east side of Icicle Creek. I was still wearing my helmet at the time of the accident; no helmet, and the outcome would have been catastrophic. Unlike goats in many other areas, the goats in this area are attracted to human activity. At Snow Creek Wall, this means donning a helmet as soon as the crag is approached. At Pearly Gates, this means also not taking helmets off while waiting around at the bottom of the crags, unless a sufficient overhang is present. In one of my previous visits to Pearly Gates, a rock whooshed by my partner and I on the second pitch of a climb, and landed in the midst of some climbers lunching below. They looked at us, and we pointed upwards to the offending goat. Most of them had taken their helmets off while resting.
The second lesson is the importance of first aid training. Susan's Wilderness First Responder (WFR) training was at least as important as more advanced EMT training, which by nature assumes that the EMT practitioner has advanced medical support tools at his or her disposal. WFR training assumes that little or no advanced tools are available, and focuses on assessment, stabilization, and treatment in a remote setting. A remote setting is, by definition, two hours away from advanced medical support. But it doesn't take much to exceed two hours. We were only an hour and a half walk in from the parking lot, but ended up 13 hours from the ambulance.
I don't really have an ending for this post. The accident continues to define my life on a day to day, minute by minute basis. It will be some time before I am back climbing, or even walking normally. My running career is likely over. My love for the mountains has not diminished, but my desire to be more prepared has increased. Even before leaving for the autumn portion of this trip, I had signed up for a WFR class at the end of November. I urge all my climbing friends reading this to at least sign up for a Wilderness First Aid class. Do this for yourself and do it for your partner. You never know when those skills may be called upon.
Saturday, October 3, 2009
Six pitches in six days. Not much of a climbing trip, but the lack of climbing was offset by the sheer beauty of the improbable geological oddity known as Devils Tower. There is no mistaking Devils Tower for any other feature on earth and it has become a Wyoming icon, its silhouette gracing every state license plate. Devils Tower also plays a prominent role in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, obsessing Richard Dreyfuss' character to the point where he makes a mashed potato sculpture of the tower at dinner. It (the Tower, not mashed potatoes) has that kind of power on people.
Long before a meeting place for aliens however, Devils Tower had become a meeting place and geological landmark for generations of area Indian tribes. Known by various names, usually a variant on Bear's Tower, the current name was the result first of a misunderstanding between natives and an interpreter, and then the apostrophe was dropped in the 1906 official proclamation that recognized Devil(')s Tower as the nation's first National Monument.
The Tower had been first climbed even before becoming a National Monument. In 1894 a couple of local ranchers erected a ladder up one side, summitting on July 4th. Remnants of this ladder still exist, and remind us that older generations were simply a hardier breed of people.
Approaches to the beginning of the climbs are mercifully short, but even twenty minutes was proving a challenge for me. Six weeks in the Tetons had taken a toll on my feet—I'm not really sure why, as I've done a lot more in the past with a lot fewer consequences. But whatever the reason, simple walking was sometimes uncomfortable and climbing was almost unthinkable. While running cross-country in college, I experienced debilitating foot pain and went to a podiatrist. He told me that I had the feetof a fifty year old man, and I should never run again. (He was also wise enough to know hislimitations, as he referred me to another podiatrist, himself a marathoner, who outfitted me with orthotics and I have continued to run ever since.) That was in 1984 when I was 21 years old, meaning that my feet had aged 2.38 years for every normal year. At 45 years of age now, my feet are 107 years old. It's no wonder I have such problems with my feet in general, and in finding decent fitting climbing shoes in particular.
Above, looking down one of the flutes
Susan's summit pose
This was the perfect time of year to climb—ideal weather, neither too hot nor too cold, and very few other climbers. The day Susan (my climbing partner) and I stood atop the Tower, we shared the small plateau with only the sun and the breeze. The top gently slopes up one side and down the other, with the high point being about 1/3 of the way from the north end. There is a summit register on top consisting of a yellow pad of lined paper in a leather cover, and we dutifully wrote our names in one of the blank pages. Unfortunately, the pad is replaced every few months and famous names—including, surprise surprise, Fred Beckey—are found mostly only in the record of the guidebook.
Prairie Dogs bid us farewell
We drove back to Jackson, once again admiring the vast scenery of Wyoming and reading from the Roadside Guide to Geology to help interpret the landscape. A large fire in Yellowstone had closed the main road, forcing a long detour over the mountains. Pelted first by rain, then by snow, we arrived back in Jackson with the Tetons cloaked in white. Somehow we had left in summer and returned a week later to the first dustings of winter.
Sunday, September 13, 2009
I climbed The Grand. Finally. After a month of looking at it from numerous angles in varying weather at differing times of the day, I wasable to look at it from above, staring down at its bulk and complexity. The 360° view in perfectly clear weather was unobstructed by other mountains, for the Grand Teton is the highest in the range (of course!) and the second highest mountain in Wyoming, just 29 feet shy of Gannett Peak's 13,799 feet.
The Grand was first (undisputedly) climbed in 1898, though attempts on it had been made or reported for over 50 years prior to that. With over a century of climbing activity, this is a mountain whose scenery is matched by its history. Famous names abound on the features, such as the Exum ridge, the Petzoldt Ridge, and the Beckey Couloir. Routes and pitches such as the Owen-Spalding, the Underhill Route and Unsoeld's Lieback celebrate the achievements of the namesakes, while the Teepe Pillar and the Rosenberg Slot are eponymous remembrance of those who there met untimely deaths. There are the stories of The Impossible Rescue in 1967 and Glen Exum's likely unrepeated 1932 jump across a death chasm which enabled him to establish, solo at the age of 21, the classic line of the mountain.
View of The Grand from The Saddle
My climb followed a typical ascent schedule—an unhurried hike on the first day to the Lower Saddle, a ridge that separates the Grand Teton from the Middle Teton, followed by the climb and descent on the second day. I was fortunate enough to have access to the Exum Guide hut and equipment located at the Lower Saddle, meaning that my partner Susan and I hiked in unencumbered with either camping or climbing gear.
The night was spent in one of the caves located just below the crest of the Saddle. The sunset as viewed from inside the cave, snugly ensconced in a sleeping bag, was soothing as the golden light gently played upon the features of our den for the night. Though Susan had never climbed the first portion of our route, the Lower Exum, she had spent considerable time on the second portion, the Upper Exum, and on the descent. We were not worried about route finding and, with a perfect forecast for the morrow, had no need of an alpine start (i.e. a three or four a.m. awakening).
Sunset view from inside our cave, above, and sleeping soundly, right
Sleeping soundly till 6, we were hiking by 7 and at the base of the climb by 8. Susan had been able to scope out the beginning of the route from the hut when we arrived, so she took the first lead. The first few pitches were still in shadow and the rock was cold but not unpleasant. But what a glorious feeling it was when we finally popped around an outcropping into sunlight! We instantly started shedding layers, and soon warmed up to the rock and to the rhythm of climbing.
Still in the shadows, but smiling
Susan in the sun and having fun!
After the Lower Exum, the climbing eases off and we changed into our more comfortable approach shoes and simul-climbed much of the Upper Exum, belaying here and there when needed. We were finally into our light and (relatively) fast mode, and we took turns leading up through the Golden Stair, the Wind Tunnel, the Double Cracks, the Friction Pitch, Unsoeld's Lieback, and The Boulder Problem In The Sky. The top came rather suddenly—I led up through some rocky terrain and...there we were, on top, a mile and a third above and a world away from our starting point the previous day. Susan and I lunched and lounged in the sun, celebrating my first trip to the top of the Grand, and our first climb together.
Jackson Hole, far below
We hung about the Exum hut for a while on the descent, returning borrowed gear and grabbing a quick bite before returning down the mountain. About halfway down from the Saddle, there is a flat area in the valley, a mini Shangri-La of streams, grasses, and alpine flowers, and ther we spotted an American Dipper, the only aquatic songbird in North America. We watched for several minutes as the Dipper bobbed up and down on a rock, and then ducked underneath the rushing waters to grab some grub. Several hours later I mimicked the Dipper, ducking underneath some rushing water from the cabin shower and grabbing my own grub, then retiring to sweet dreams of mountains and streams and sunlit skies.